(Note: There are mild spoilers for the mid-point of the game Max Payne 3 and the end of Bioshock 2 and Halo 3.)
I recently had the brainflash that games have gotten extremely reliant on the “White Knight Savior” and “Save The Cheerleader, Save The World,” goal-setting style of storytelling. Is there an over-reliance on these ideas? There will always be a demand for the “White Knight Savior” story. There will always be a love of goal-setting games. But can there be more games that don’t rely on this and will they ever be treated as more than just an artsy game or some fluke in popularity? And will the games that currently fulfill this need become popular in the way that most Triple A titles relying on an overused story device have?
I’ve played many games in my life: using console systems from the Vectrex to my Xbox 360, and playing games from Joust to Mass Effect 3. The games that involved a “saving someone else” storyline started for me with King’s Quest V, received as a shared Christmas gift with my brother in the early 90s, and went all the way through to this spring’s release of Max Payne 3. While playing Halo 3, Bioshock 2 and Max Payne 3 all in a row, it occurred to me that the “White Knight Savior” and the “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” storyline, works best when it’s subverted, but the narrative has been overused to the point that it is no longer actually satisfying.
I should clarify what I mean by, “White Knight Savior.” Specifically, I’m thinking of those scenarios where the playable character is impeccable and pure in some strange way and is focused entirely on rescuing another person. Often the savior is male and the distressed person is female. A typical example of this is Mario jumping and headbutting his way through turtles, toxic plants, and other odd adversaries to rescue Princess Peach, who languishes in another castle. “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” just extends the idea to: saving this one distressed character means that you have saved the world… or galaxy. Or, at least, that character’s world. This phrase, taken from the since cancelled NBC show Heroes, perfectly encapsulates that idea.
But in playing all three games in a row, the final game in my list, Max Payne 3, had an unexpected emotional impact on me. It affected me simply by having both an anti-hero and a moment where a specific game-set goal I was trying to reach was taken out of my grasp. The first two games, Halo 3 and Bioshock 2 did not give me that same effect at all.
With Halo 3, I unfortunately found myself bored immediately. Its savior story was not particularly innovative. Master Chief, the playable character, is an impersonal armored space marine type who fights parasitic aliens and religious fanatics to save both the excessively feminine human-created artificial intelligence, Cortana, and all sentient life in the galaxy. On one hand, saving the galaxy is a nice overblown goal that brought to mind the cheerleader idea, but it just felt silly that an artificial intelligence needs saving and often appears as a female avatar in somewhat revealing clothing. Unfortunately, she’s not dressed as a cheerleader to complete the comparison. So close though!
Following Halo 3, I played through Bioshock 2, which had a little more fun with the “White Knight Savior” story. Specifically, the player can choose whether or not to save the Little Sister characters: young girls who have been genetic manipulated and mutated into creepy little vampire creatures. However, in the main story, your goal is still to save Elena, the Little Sister you had once been linked to. In this sequel, you play what is known as a Big Daddy, who acts as the little girls’ protector and helper. Even though you are slaughtering your way through insane, mutated residents of the underwater city of Rapture, you are still somehow pure in intent. Once you’ve saved Elena, you need her to help you through the remainder of the game. At the very end, although you have saved her, she is unable to save you, which at least takes out any sort of “Happily Ever After” element to the storyline.
Once I got to Max Payne 3, I was absolutely sick of the “White Knight Savior” story prevailing in the other two games. Max Payne 3 at least has no “White Knight” aspect to the game, and I found that the ways in which the savior story was subverted made the game that much more interesting. The game is a third person shooter, starring Max Payne, a former New York City police detective who’s been kicked off of the force and on to hard times. The majority of the gameplay involves Max Payne traveling around São Paolo trying to rescue members of a family he’s been hired to protect. As you can imagine, this rescue operation involves lots of guns and lots and lots of ammunition.
With Max Payne as an nihilistic anti-hero, the noir elements of the game become obvious. On the screen, between scenes of the game, Payne wanders around his apartment, drinking and pill-popping his way to oblivion while the sunset peeks through the blinds and slow, sad jazz music plays. The main surprise, however, is that he ends up not being a savior at all, because he does not succeed in saving everyone. In fact, it appears that he gets these people into more trouble just by being there. Having, mid-gameplay, one of the characters I’d been working so hard to save suddenly be killed in front of me was a shocking experience. This does not happen as often as you’d think in games, and when I’ve spent hours working towards a goal that is taken away from me in a moment, it is unbalancing and creates a huge emotional impact.
Games are usually focused on accomplishing goals. With Halo 3 and Bioshock 2, these goals were obvious and the only thing keeping you from accomplishing them was either to die, in which case you’d be reborn shortly after, or to quit. In Max Payne 3, finding that I couldn’t accomplish a goal created an emotional situation that other forms of media have not replicated. Video games and the video game world have been fighting for recognition as an art form over the past few years. By mimicking the film noir style in Max Payne 3, there’s obviously a continuing effort to make video games more of an art form, and yet the style didn’t cause an emotional reaction in me the way that a cruel trick of the game designers did. I found myself staring at the TV for a good fifteen minutes, completely unsure what I was going to have to go through next. This particular way of destroying the typical savior story was finely tuned, frustrating and rather wicked on the part of the game designers.
With Halo 3 and Bioshock 2 plodding through the same old storyline I’ve seen countless times before, the addition of an anti-hero and the frustration of a goal was exciting and different. And yet, neither of these ideas are new! It’s possible that it was just the newness of something I hadn’t seen in a while that excited me, but I want more. I want stories to be told in new and interesting ways. This will require publishers to take risks, but I have hope that it will happen.
This week’s Guest Star is Clarice Meadows. Clarice Meadows is a video games industry veteran, writer, and aspiring game designer. See more of her writing at Plays Like a Girl where she discusses video games, design elements, NYC games events, geeky things, and feminism in games. She can be found on twitter @embereye where she talks about all of these things and posts pictures of her cats (who seem to be in love with the actor Matt Bomer).